“Beware of Pity.”  Who would think to proffer such advice, in a novel no less, repeatedly and in great detail? At first glance pity would seem to be one of the primal human emotions, written of and encouraged, in some form, by all religions. Yet it is not uncommon to feel, or to read about those who feel, anger at being pitied by another, as if demeaned, as if  pity were a disguise for superiority and power.

But it is just such council that Stefan Zweig offers in his 1939 novel Beware of Pity.  Zweig, an Austrian Jew, was one of Europe’s most widely read writers of the 1920s and 30s, who now, all but forgotten, is having a small reintroduction in a series of New York Review Books Classics.  In the years before World War I in Vienna, his literary and social circles included many of that phenomenal generation, Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud among them.   These were the golden years, ‘The World of Security,’  as he recounts in his autobiography, and one of his last books, The World of Yesterday.  In exile in 1942, having fled the Nazis first to Switzerland, then to England and the United States before settling in Brazil he wrote:

 “Today, now that the word ‘security’ has long been struck out of our vocabulary as a phantom, it is easy for us to smile at the optimistic delusion of that idealistically dazzled generation, who thought that the technical progress of mankind must inevitably result in an equally rapid moral rise.  We who, in the new century, have learnt not to be surprise by any new outbreak of collective bestiality….

The manuscript sent off, he committed suicide, along with his wife, Lotte.

 Books Beware of PityBeware of Pity was not the only novel in which he probed, at great length, a single idea, or emotion. Burning Secret, Fear and Compulsion are just a few titles of fictional explorations of the new Freudian terrain then appearing. In fact, not a few have referred to his books as fictionalized Freudian case-studies. Pity was one of the last, written in 1938-39 while he was in London, and probably not coincidentally while divorcing his wife of 18 years and liaising with his much younger secretary, who would become his wife.  The guilt Hofmiller suffers in Beware of Pity has its genuine roots somewhere.

I was drawn to reading it, and The World of Yesterday, after a visit to Vienna several months ago when I realized, reading Vienna: A Literary Traveler’s Companion, that Zweig’s name barely rang a bell in me though he had once rung recognition all over Europe, translated into dozens of languages.

As he does in other novels, and was not uncommon with writers then, the story begins with an avowal by a narrator that he was told this story by another, who then becomes the narrator — in this case the aged Anton Hofmiller who cautions the original narrator, on the eve of WW II, that the great courage everyone was talking about,and demanding of others, and with which he, himself, was credited, is often nothing more than “inverted weakness.”  He speaks from experience.  His medals and commendations for bravery were won in the Austrian army, fighting Russians and Serbs, in WW I. The story he is going to tell, however, is about his lack of bravery, which he says, is true of most:

During the war practically the only courage I came across was mass courage, the courage that comes of being one of a herd, and anyone who examines this phenomenon more closely will find it to be compounded of some very strange elements: a great deal of vanity, a great deal of recklessness and even boredom, but, above all, a great deal of fear — yes, fear of staying behind, fear of being sneered at, fear of independent action, and fear, above all, of taking a stand against the mass enthusiasm of one’s fellows.

And Hofmiller begins to tell his story.  As a cavalry officer in the Austrian army, trying to be introduced to the beautiful and vivacious Ilona, he obtains an invitation to the home of the wealthiest man in the region.  There, in an effort to make an impression as a gentleman, he invites Edith, Ilona’s cousin and daughter of the host, to dance, not noticing that her flowing gown covers crippled legs.  She becomes hysterical and he filled with shame. After fleeing, he returns the following days, having sent bouquets and attentive notes.  He begins to visit the young women daily and finds himself in lovely company, setting aside the manly roughness of the regiment and feeling very much at home, aware also that he is gratified at the attention being paid to him; wondering that he, a low-born man, could actually matter to others.

For the first time in my life I had received an assurance that I had been of use to someone on this earth, and my astonishment at the thought that I, a commonplace, unsophisticated young officer, should really have the power to make someone else so happy knew no bounds .

Unfortunately, Edith’s paralysis, after a fall from a horse not so many years before,  has also done damage to her spirit.  Zwieg is a master at creating a character for whom we simultaneously feel compassion and great irritation.  She explodes in anger at those around her, then reverses herself and begs their forgiveness showing some degree of self-awareness, to only repeat it days later.

It’s simply out of pity that you come, I’ve felt that in my bones for ages, merely out of pity, and you would like, moreover, to be admired for your noble selflessness — but I regret to have to inform you that I refuse to allow anyone to sacrifice himself on my behalf! I refuse to tolerate that from anyone — least of all from you … I forbid you to do it, do you hear me? I forbid it!

Hofmiller is genuinely a nice fellow, generous with his time and attention but aware that he is getting something in return.  At one point, after several calamitous encounters followed by wonderful recoveries, he leaves exulting:

On that evening I was God. I had created the world, and lo! it was full of goodness and justice . I had created a human being, her forehead gleamed like the morning and a rainbow of happiness was mirrored in her eyes.

All intriguing, and one hundred years later, still contemporary, though somewhat in the manner of the time, and somewhat as Zwieg the writer, it does seem to go on too long. He uses repetition instead of condensation and density to make his points.  He is melodramatic.  He leans on stereotypes.  A long section mid-way gives us the father’s back story, a poor Moravian Jew, and how he became wealthy — which in addition to using stereotypical ideas about Jews, doubles down on the pity story.  As Leopold Kanitz, in the process of becoming Baron Emil de Kekeslava, succeeds in rescuing a woman from an unwanted inheritance by acquiring it himself, he suddenly understands she will be completely alone, and asks her to marry him.  Their daughter is the Edith of the story.

Doctor Condor, the third of four major characters, is similarly a man who has had pity, but in the right way, as Zweig ensures we know, using an exhortation late in the book, from the Doctor to Hofmiller, also as an epigram at the beginning:

But there are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond. It is only when one goes on to the end, to the extreme, bitter end, only when one has an inexhaustible fund of patience, that one can help one’s fellows. Only when one is prepared to sacrifice oneself in doing so — and then only!’

 

After several of these detours — all enjoyable if the reader can not think too impatiently about reaching the destination — the story picks up with an explosive demonstration of sexual need and the consternation, and accusation of willful blindness, it brings. A sudden departure, more warnings about pity, more feelings of love, and doubt about it,  carry to an end which spirals into disaster as communications between the loved and the lover, the pitied and pitier, are interrupted by the chaos of the assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, and the beginning of the WW I.

It is interesting to me is that while pity and its dangers are the focus of the story, and of reviewers, another, human condition, with which the story begins, and is confessed to more than once by Hofmiller, is not so strongly commented upon: the fear of gossip and disgrace, the influence which the fear of what others might think, their sniggering and sneering, has on our actions.  Throughout the book, Hofmiller himself understands that it is this fear, as much as a genuine sense of pity, that sets in motion so much of his behavior.  And Zwieg, writing the book as the popularity of the Nazis grew in Germany and Austria [the April 10, 1938 vote in Austria approving the German occupation of a month earlier was 99.7% in favor],  observed and greatly feared this human weakness.  In a book primarily about pity, set twenty years earlier, he injects more than once his warning:

It always demands a far greater degree of courage for an individual to oppose an organized movement than to let himself be carried along with the stream — individual courage, that is, a variety of courage that is dying out in these times of progressive organization and mechanization.

I for one, would have liked to see this raised a few levels higher.  Without that, Beware of Pity is still quite a marvelous story, of an old fashioned kind, worth visiting when one has time for a leisurely yet often compelling read.  It has also been made into a quite acceptable 1946 movie by Maurice Elvey, [and here on Netflix] tracking the novel itself quite well, without the long detours.

 

The translation from German by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt is quite good, retaining some English, words and phrasing,  from the period but not so much as to burden a 21st century reader.  Joan Acocella, of “The New Yorker,” “New York Review of Books,” and others, contributes a helpful introduction in the NYRB volume.

For more on Zweig, Julie Kavanagh has a fine, short essay at “Intelligent Life,” and Dan Vyleta a cautiously praising review of Beware of Pity for “Asymptote.”

For a vituperative look at Zweig by a current day writer and translator,  Michael Hoffman, see this, seconded by Stuart Walton at the Guardian, with a mini-answer during a review of Fear  by the Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard, here.